Michael Russell told the Australian High commissioner in a meeting two months ago that he wanted to hold a second referendum by the end of 2021.
The SNP minister has previously called publicly for a referendum by the end of the year, but Tory leader Douglas Ross says it shows this is now the "official position" of the Scottish Government and demanded a greater focus on fighting Coronavirus.
Nicola Sturgeon has insisted that the battle against the pandemic is the key focus of her Government, with plans for a mass vaccination of the population underway and a new lockdown in place to halt the spread of he virus.
The latest constitutional row has emerged after a freedom of information request by the Tories obtained the minutes of a meeting between Mr Russell and Australian High Commissioner, George Brandis on 10 November.
They state: “George Brandis [GB] enquired about the proposed timing of the referendum post the Scottish election. Mike Russell [MR] confirmed he would hope a second referendum could be held by end 2021.”
This happened a week before it was announced that 11 council areas in Scotland would go into tier 4.
Mr Ross has said the First Minister must distance the government from Mr Russell’s comments and ditch plans for a referendum later this year.
“In her BBC statements, Nicola Sturgeon puts on a false face and pretends to have paused her indyref2 campaign but the SNP’s constitution minister let slip the reality to overseas officials," Mr Ross said.
“This document shows that while virus rates increase rapidly, the SNP Government’s official position is to hold indyref2 in 2021. Nothing could be more reckless when our entire focus should be on fighting the pandemic.
“Nicola Sturgeon’s self-declared cautious approach obviously doesn’t apply to a second independence referendum. When that’s the topic, she abandons sense in a heartbeat.
“A responsible First Minister would today denounce her constitution minister’s comments and confirm her government has u-turned and will no longer push for a second independence referendum this year, to get all the focus back on to the fight against Covid-19.”
Consistent polling throughout last year showed that a majority of Scots now support independence. The Scottish Government has been calling on the UK Government, which has control over the constitution, to allow a repeat of the 2014 vote on leaving the UK which saw 55% reject independence. Ministers at Holyrood say the Brexit vote, which saw a majority of Scots vote to remain in the EU while the weight of votes south of the border swung the outcome in favour of Leave, represents a “material change” in circumstance which justifies another referendum.
Nationalists say a pro-independence majority in May’s Holyrood election would see Boris Johnson forced to relent and allow a repeat of the 2014 vote. The Prime Minister said at the weekend another vote should not take place for another 40 years.
A spokesman for Ms Sturgeon rejected claims that Government efforts to deal with the pandemic are being affected by the plan to stage a second referendum on leaving the UK.
He said: “No one is proposing holding an independence referendum in the middle of the pandemic – unlike the Tories, who have disgracefully ploughed ahead with Brexit amid the Covid crisis and whose leader tried to politicise the provision of COVID vaccines.
“It is not for the Tories, to dictate to the people of Scotland what choices they should have over the nation’s future. That will only be decided by the people themselves in the coming election – and the First Minister has made clear that her intention would be for a referendum to be held after the pandemic, in the first half of the next Parliament.
“We have a Programme for Government commitment to publish a Bill before the end of this current parliament, to set out the terms of a future referendum clearly and unambiguously. Such a referendum will allow the people of Scotland to choose who is best to lead them out of the current crisis and to oversee the rebuilding of the country after the pandemic.”
SNP Westminster leader, Ian Blackford, said in November that a second referendum on Scottish independence could take place in the second half of 2021.
The Scottish Government is to publish legislation before the end of the current Holyrood term in April setting out the “terms and timing” of a future independence referendum. The SNP is currently on course for a landslide victory in the looming Scottish Parliament vote and if this results in a Holyrood majority independence supporters believe that Mr Johnson would be forced to relent and grant a referendum. It was the return of an SNP majority in 2011 which led to the staging three years later of the previous referendum. Ms Sturgeon has hinted that she may be ready to go to court to test the constitutional position if the UK Government still refuses to budge under such circumstances.
But Mr Russell’s comments came under fire from Pamela Nash chief executive of Scotland in Union organisation.“This is reckless talk from Mike Russell with a foreign government,” she said.“No serious politician would even contemplate holding a divisive second independence referendum any time soon.“The SNP should drop its obsession with dividing people and work to bring communities together as we recover from the pandemic.“By working with our largest trading market and closest friends and neighbours to build a successful future in the UK, we are stronger together.”